Disconnects with Offshore Customer Service


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I’m sure you are tired of articles about the Boston Marathon bombings and aftermath events. I know I am, and I live in Boston, in one of the neighborhoods that was in lock down on April 17 and 18. But something that happened during that week brought me to clarity about a bias that I, and many other U.S.-based customers have. We don’t like—nay, we don’t really trust—customer service agents from other countries.

Now, I have always prided myself on my lack of prejudice and my acceptance of all people no matter where they are from, their color, their religion, their sexual orientation, etc. I am intolerant only of those who are intolerant. I was brought up to believe that you didn’t have to like everyone—that you could, indeed, hate someone, as long as that individual deserved it. The key point is that you make decisions about individuals, not about people as a group. So I have always been slightly ashamed of how adverse I am to dealing with foreign customer service agents.

Sometimes I would wonder, why am I being so jingoistic? What’s happened to me? When did I turn into such a bigoted bitch? But something clicked last week when dealing with a Philippines-based customer service rep from Dell.

There seem to be three areas where offshore CSRs have trouble connecting to the U.S. customer base:

• Empathizing with the customer’s situation (and offering comfort)
• A willingness to try to circumvent the rigid rules to satisfy a customer’s needs
• An understanding of the context in which the U.S. customer finds herself

EMPATHY. I have documented my difficulties dealing with Dell customer service agents (in Central America as well as the Philippines) in a previous blog post, so I won’t go into the problems I have with the policies under which they operate. That’s not their fault. I get annoyed with restrictive and customer-alienating policies presented to me by U.S.-based CSRs. But the reason I tend to get very irritated with foreign customer service agents is that they often have no real understanding—thus no (or, at best, limited) empathy with how I’m feeling.

This is not to say that they aren’t perfectly lovely people, but, in the case of the Dell CSR I was dealing with (my hard disk crashed and I needed another), she didn’t react at all to my panic at the fact that it would take three days for them to send a technician with another hard disk. She seemed to have no sympathy that I would be unable to work on deadlines, and she just kept responding that it was policy that it would take that long. If she had shown any empathy, I would have felt much better. But no matter how much I explained the urgent nature of my situation, she wouldn’t even consider trying to speed up the three day process.

PERSISTENCE IN FOLLOWING RIGID RULES. This last statement leads to the next issue. There should have been a way to make everything happen more quickly. I was even willing to pay to overnight a new hard disk to the field service rep. But that’s not how things work. From my experience with customer service agents—and I have a lot of experience—offshore CSRs seem to have a more rigid set of rules that they must follow; they are given almost no power to do anything but what is always done. The CSR was quiet while I suggested all sorts of ways Dell might be able to better help me, and then went on as if I hadn’t said anything.

Adding to the whole customer experience was the fact that she had determined that the broken hard drive was still accessible, so I could retrieve the data on it, although it wouldn’t load. So I planned to take the old hard drive to local experts at Staples and have them attempt to recover my data as soon as I had my new hard disk installed. (Since Dell wouldn’t perform that service for me.) But the Dell policy is that any replaced equipment must be returned to Dell. She could give me 10 days to do any transfer, etc., but I would have to return the broken hard disk within that timeframe.

Three days later, the repair tech came and got my laptop running with the new hard drive (onto which I loaded Windows and all my productivity applications). By the time that was done, it was late in the day, and I couldn’t get to Staples. And I was tied up with meetings the next day.

It was now two days after the hard disk swap. I had already received a phone call from the Dell CSR asking when I’d be sending back the hard disk. I said I thought I had 10 days, but she wanted to “be sure I did return it.”

So I took the old hard disk to Staples the next day, and the wonderfully empathetic EasyTech representative let me know it would take about two days to do the recovery. That night I got another call from the Dell CSR about sending back the hard disk. I explained it would take two more days at least, and didn’t I have 10 days anyway?

And then the bombing happened at the Boston Marathon on Monday, April 15. As I was taking in all that had happened, I got another call asking if I had sent the disk back. I live in Boston, just five or six miles from the bombing site. I was devastated. The last thing I had thought about was my disk drive.

When I asked her why she had called on this day, didn’t she know what was going on, she said that she didn’t. She had no idea. She apologized for calling at a bad time, but still persisted in asking me exactly when I was going to send back the drive. I told her to stop nagging me. That I would return it. And to have some consideration.

Anyway, I picked up the drive on Wednesday night. Thursday, all day, I was busy with consulting deadlines, so I planned to mail it off on Friday. Then at 6:30 am I got an automated call from the City of Boston warning me to stay indoors, that a dangerous man hunt was going on near my neighborhood, and to lock my doors and not open them to any but a uniformed police officer.

As I, like everyone in my area, huddled inside, watching news updates, following online blogs on what was happening, she called again. I told her that there was still a crisis and I was forbidden to leave my house to mail the drive. Didn’t she know? No, she didn’t. And, again, she paid lip service to being sorry that it was “an inconvenient time,” but the 10 days had elapsed and I needed to tell her exactly when I would post the package. I told her that I would as soon as I was out from “house arrest!”

A LACK OF UNDERSTANDING OF THE CULTURE OR CLIMATE OF THE CUSTOMER’S CONTEXT. It astonished me that the Dell CSR didn’t know about the bombings and the manhunt. I got calls from people all over the U.S. and Canada, and Facebook messages from friends in Europe, asking if I was okay and for updates, so I knew it wasn’t just a local news story. But the climate of crisis that most of America was dealing with wasn’t apparent in the Philippines. At least, not to the Dell CSR.

I understand, in retrospect. I am not aware of what is happening over there. But my job doesn’t deal with the Philippines. Her customers are here in the U.S. In order to support a customer, you need to understand the culture, the climate, and the context in which they live. When a company sends its customer service offshore, it needs to make sure that the support personnel are attuned to the needs of the customers, including what is happening around them.

I’ve noticed lately that some U.S.-based customer service call center agents identify where they are from (e.g., “This is Sherika from Columbus”). The companies with local support are basically bragging about it when they set up the policy of identifying where the CSR is located. And I understand why. My level of anxiety goes down when I know I’m dealing with a customer agent who understands me.

This isn’t a call for bringing all customer support home (although that would be great for employment figures). Rather, it is a request that foreign CSRs are trained to stay informed of what is happening in their customers’ lives (at least, the public things), to understand American sensibilities (much less rigid adherence to rules), and how we like to be treated (with empathy and as individuals). I shouldn’t matter where your support is based. It should matter how it is delivered to solve customers’ problems the way we want them to be solved.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Ronni Marshak
Patricia Seybold Group
Ronni Marshak co-developed Patricia Seybold Group's Customer Scenario® Mapping (CSM) methodology with Patricia Seybold and PSGroup's customers. She runs the CSM methodology practice, including training, certification, and licensing. She identifies, codifies, and updates the recurring patterns in customers' ideal scenarios, customers' moments of truth, and customer metrics that she discovers across hundreds of customer co-design sessions.


  1. Hi Ronni and thanks for a really interesting post. I commissioned some research a few years ago and interestingly offshore operations scored the same as onshore ones for CSAT whenever the problem was resolved, however if it wasn’t the offshore operation scored much lower – the customer would then mention language and culture.

    My personal theory on your issues are that your experiences reflect more on the leadership rather than the fact that the operation was offshore. Empathy and rulebook bias are symptomatic of a metric dominated operation focussed on process rather than outcome.

    For me the skill in offshoring is choosing what transactions are to be offshored and having domestic leadership on-site to oversee the execution.

  2. You are right, of course, Dougie. It’s only when we’re not satisfied that we look for reasons why. And it is the responsibility of the leadership to empower customer support agents with the flexibility to respond to customers as individuals rather than just to follow a set of rules in a rigid process. Great points!


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